Sunday, January 18, 2015

Va'era (I appeared)

Va'era (I appeared)
Sh'mot 6:2-9:35

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This is going to be one of my longer posts. This week's Torah portion has much that we can learn beyond the basics of the plague stories that we all know so well. I will be discussing two topics that I have named "The Plague Pattern" and "The Staff of God". I will go into detail about both of these topics as we go along.

But first, I want to address the beginning of the Torah portion when YHVH seems to contradict his own Torah. In Sh'mot (Exodus) 6:3 Yahweh says “…I did not make myself known to them by my name, YHVH.” Yet, His name is shown repeatedly in Torah during the stories of Avraham, Ya’akov, etc. We even see in B'resheet (Genesis) 32:9 that Ya'akov refers to Him as Yahweh. So how can they not have known His name? To understand this statement, we must understand that a name is more than just a name. It is not enough for someone to know that my name is Robbie. There are plenty of people named Robbie running around, mostly unsupervised. There is even another one running around inside my own house. Therefore, if I tell someone that I am Robbie, I haven't really told them that much about me. To make a name known is to show the full meaning of the one who owns the name. If I tell you my last name, where I live, that I am a husband and father, you begin to know more of who I am. In the context of Torah study and instruction, I can tell you that at our synagogue, I am the Gabbai (like an MC, I control the order of service, lead announcements and liturgy, etc.), I am an elder, I am a teacher, and I am the son of the head Rabbi. Now you can start to understand more of me and my authority to write this blog. Each new bit of information gets you closer to "knowing my name".

For the Patriarchs, they did not yet know the full extent of YHVH’s power and might. They had only begun to see some of who He is. While they had the promise of YHVH, they had not yet seen the fulfillment of His promise. That fulfillment would be seen by their descendants. Someone's name is his reputation. In other words, we are known by our actions. Looking back from our present day, we can see that fulfilling the promise to give the land to Avraham's descendants made His name known.

Read verses 4-8 of this chapter and you will see YHVH explaining to the Israelites how He will make His name known. He reminds them of the covenant, describes how He will fulfill that covenant, and then finishes His description with His name, showing the completion of His introduction.

According to the prophets of the Tanakh and Revelation, He will make His name known again.

Now let's get to the topics I mentioned above.

The Staff of God

This topic actually starts with last week's Torah portion. As we all know, when Yahweh spoke to Moshe at the burning bush, He got Moshe's attention through the staff that Moshe carried. As a shepherd, he would always have his staff when in the field. It made for a good teaching tool. It also shows us a pattern that Yahweh still uses today. Something ordinary, when used by Yahweh and for Yahweh, becomes extraordinary. A staff, a rock in the desert, a teenager too small to fight a giant. These are only a few examples. But there are times when even the extraordinary isn't quite enough.

In Sh'mot 4:2-4, we see Moshe's staff turn into a snake. When Moshe picks it up, it reverts back to a staff. This is important; Moshe is now holding his staff in his hand. Now read verse 17. It's OK. I'll wait.

Are you back? Good. If Moshe is already holding his staff in his hand, as verse 4 tells us that he is, what staff is Yahweh telling him to take? If you were holding a bottle of your favorite beverage (mmm... Mt. Dew) and said "Here, take this Mt. Dew", would you think I was referring to the one in your hand, or to a new one that I am giving you? If I wanted you to take the one in your hand, I would say "your Mt. Dew", not "this Mt. Dew." See the difference? Read verse 17 again. There is no use of "your". Now go to verse 20 and read the second sentence. I'm waiting again.

Welcome back. Did you see anything interesting in that verse. Whose staff did Moshe take with him to Egypt? Who's staff was needed to perform miracles in Egypt? Why did Moshe need to take God's staff to Egypt instead of his own? We already saw it turn into a snake once. Why couldn't it be used for the same purpose again? I think the better question to ask is, in who's authority was Moshe to act in Egypt?

In Midian, Moshe's staff was his tool for exercising power and control over his flocks. Moshe didn't go to Egypt to display his own power. He was given authority by Yahweh, and therefore needed a symbol of Yahweh's power. Hence, the staff of God.

The Hebrew word for staff is matteh. Interestingly, this word can be translated as rod, staff, branch, or tribe. It can refer to a rod of correction, a ruling sceptre, a lance, a walking staff, or figuratively as a support of life. In the case of God's staff in Egypt, we can see it being used for correction of Pharaoh, a ruling sceptre to show Yahweh's authority given to Moshe, and as a support of life in saving the Israelites from Pharaoh. Remember, Yahweh doesn't give us a single lesson to learn with each of His actions. Everything we read in Torah has many meanings and layers of meaning. I challenge you to spend some time rereading these chapters, substituting each meaning of matteh, and looking for new understanding. This is also a good way to find connections to other verses throughout the Tanakh and B'rit Chadasha that use the same word in different contexts.

Speaking of Moshe using the power of Yahweh in Egypt, that leads us to our next topic.

The Plague Pattern

Anyone who has studied Torah for any length of time or has heard me teach a time or two is aware that Yahweh uses patterns. The cyclical pattern is very clear and applies in micro and macro scale throughout scripture. As we continue to study, though, we can see other patterns emerging. In this Torah portion, we can see patterns in the order and types of plagues that are brought upon Egypt. The plagues in this portion are grouped into three sets of three. The final plague is a capstone that closes out the pattern while keeping itself separate.

Let's begin with the first three plagues. These three are different from the rest in that they affected the Israelites as well as the Egyptians. Within these three we can see a pattern that is unique to this set. The first plague, turning the water to blood, was duplicated by Pharaoh's magicians. It appeared from the start that Pharaoh was as powerful as Yahweh. It is important to remember that Yahweh allowed this to be seen by the Israelites. They needed to see the power of Pharaoh. The second plague, frogs, was also duplicated by the magicians. However, there was a problem. They could not get rid of the frogs. Pharaoh was forced to ask Moshe to have Yahweh remove the frogs. The Israelites and Egyptians began to see that Yahweh was stronger than Pharaoh. Now came the third plague, lice. This was the final plague to affect Israel. Pharaoh's magicians were forced to admit that they could not duplicate this feat. They had no choice but to acknowledge that this was a work of God. More importantly, Israel had no choice but to acknowledge it also.

When the fourth plague, insects (or flies, or wild beasts - the meaning of the word is unclear) comes, we begin to see another pattern. If you look at the first nine plagues in groups of three as I mentioned earlier, you will see that the first of each set starts with Moshe and Aharon speaking to Pharaoh at the river. These were very public pronouncements made to Pharaoh where everyone could see and hear them. They were public challenges to his authority and power. The second of each set is preceded by Moshe and Aharon approaching Pharaoh in his throne room. While the announcements are less public, they are more threatening to Pharaoh's seat of power. They are a direct confrontation where he is strongest. Finally, the third plague comes without warning. No proclamations are made and Pharaoh is given no chance to avoid the plague by releasing the Israelites. These plagues show Pharaoh that Yahweh can do anything he wants in Egypt, with our without Pharaoh's knowledge, and there is nothing Pharaoh can do about it.

Another pattern is seen in the types of plagues in each group and the escalating severity. In each group there is a large-scale annoyance plague, an all-pervasive plague, and a deadly plague, all increasing in intensity and severity. These do not stay in the same order in each group, possibly as a way of intensifying the fear and uncertainty gripping the land. The annoyance plagues consist of frogs, insects, and locusts. Each gets harder to deal with until the last destroys their food supply. The next group are the all-pervasive plagues. The lice, like the frogs, are everywhere. They are much smaller and nearly impossible to remove. The boils come upon everyone in a fine dust that is unavoidable. Finally, the darkness that was impenetrable. These escalated from very annoying, to painful, to terrifying. Finally, there were the deadly plagues. The first plague was turning the water to blood. We see that all the fish died. While unpleasant and rough on the seafood industry, it was not a long-term hardship for the Egyptians. The next was the livestock disease. Killing all the animals was a significant hit to the Egyptian economy and food supply. Finally, in group three, we have the hail. This is the first plague to kill humans and is therefore the worst of the death plagues. Until we get to the final plague which combines features of every group.

The last plague included an annoyance; can't go out after dark. It was all-pervasive; every Egyptian home was affected. And it was the most devastating death plague. It was a targeted killing that struck the very fabric of Egyptian society, including Pharaoh's own house. Yahweh pulled out all the stops. The message from this final plague was clear. Pharaoh tried to destroy Yahweh's firstborn, Israel. Yahweh succeeded in destroying Pharaoh's firstborn. He disrupted the line of succession and inheritance. The last plague had permanent effects for Egypt. And for Pharaoh.

The patterns don't end with the plagues themselves. Yahweh was also setting up a pattern for Israel's future. As I mentioned earlier, Yahweh will make His name known again. We read of a Greater Exodus that will take place. What patterns can you see in the prophecies of this time?

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